Katie Zhu

Redrawing Beauty

After the Parkland shooting on February 14th of this year, I regrammed an image that seemed to be just about everywhere on Instagram. In black script, on a light pink background, it read: Thoughts and Prayers (crossed out) and below it, Policy and Change. I posted it because it’s time for a major shift in gun control, but I didn’t know the artist who created the drawing so I just tagged my friend who had posted it. Coincidentally, one of my followers knows the artist. She connected us so I could credit her.

The artist, Katie Zhu, and after scrolling through her feed, I reached out to see about a collaboration. Katie talks a lot about acceptance and self-love, I knew she would have a lot to say about redefining beauty, a topic dear to us. She excitedly accepted the task, and delivered.

We’ll be sharing all of her drawings on The Moment’s IG (tune in today to see the first one!), and we also took the opportunity to interview Katie in celebration of her just launched site, PolicyandChange.com. Here we talk about what beauty means to her and what it’s like to have something as personal and meaningful as a drawing go viral.

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Laney: Hi Katie! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Katie: Hi! I’m Katie, I live in Oakland with my boyfriend and my dog. I recently left my job at Medium to work on my own creative projects, which has been both really exciting and scary. I spend my days drawing, obsessing over stationery and notebooks, working out, and eating good food. I like to stay busy outside of my daily routine, so I’ve been taking figure skating lessons for the last year – I’m now learning spins and jumps (cool but terrifying).

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L: We met because I reposted your now famous illustration on gun reform. What were the most surprising reactions to this drawing of yours?

K: Thank you so much for choosing to share my artwork! Yeah, my friend Sophia has been following you since the beginning of your career and was freaking out that you reposted it 🙂 I was really floored by how much it resonated with people. I drew it after the Vegas shooting in October 2017. And unfortunately, it continues to be timely and relevant. After every shooting, there’s a surge in sharing and reposting. The most surprising reaction was probably…… the people who stole my art and slapped it on a $75 hoodie. For the most part, people agreed with the message and sentiment, though there were some who said I shouldn’t have crossed out “thoughts & prayers.”

L: On your Instagram you talk a lot about growing up with parents from different backgrounds and finding yourself, tell us about that.

K: I’m Chinese American, and it took me a long time to really embrace the Chinese part of my identity. My parents are both Chinese and came to the States for graduate school. I was born in America, lived here until I was 11, in predominantly white towns. So I didn’t grow up around many people who looked like me, and I always felt different, not fully accepted and like I didn’t really belong, even though I so desperately tried to.

Then we moved around a lot overseas for my dad’s job — Switzerland, Singapore, and China. I went to high school in Beijing, where obviously I was around a majority of people who did look like me. But then it was almost the opposite – most of the Beijing locals knew I was a “lao wai” (foreigner), because my style, clothes and demeanor were very Westernized.

I’m grateful to my parents for their commitment to raising my sister and I in a bilingual and bicultural household. They always emphasized the importance of learning Chinese and staying in touch with our roots. For me, that really meant language and food, which is how I still express that part of my identity today. If I have a really shitty and stressful day, there’s nothing more comforting than eating red braised pork, eggplant, rice, or a bowl of instant noodles.

L: How did that affect your thoughts on beauty?

K: It had a pretty deep impact on how I thought about beauty. I really hated being Asian until I got to high school. Growing up in a majority white town (the only other Asian girl in my school was my sister) shaped my perception of what I thought was beautiful. And it wasn’t just where I grew up, but the lack of representation in everything I consumed reinforced those standards of beauty. All through my childhood and early teen years, beauty meant: blond hair, blue eyes, double eyelids, skinny, no ass (the denim skirts were very in back then). I remember thinking to myself, if I dyed my hair blonde, wore colored contacts and changed schools, maybe no one would know I was Asian.

L: You recently quit your job to follow your passion as an illustrator (congratulations!). What was that like?

K: Ah thank you! I was full of butterflies and anxious in a good way. It was a huge leap for me. I’ve lived most of my life taking the path I “should” — going to college, graduating with a degree, taking internships every summer, landing a job in tech, working a full-time job. That’s been amazing and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. But I started to feel this creeping sense of discontent, that I was missing something, and I wasn’t satisfied with my creative practice or output.

I’m extremely fortunate to be in a financial position where I was able to quit. I had one week of full freedom to myself and then we adopted our pup — he’s an 8 month old German Shepherd/Husky mix — so that slightly derailed my schedule haha. But I’m settling into a good routine now.

I’m building up my illustration portfolio and looking for client work and collaboration opportunities. It’s scary to jump into a new discipline, but I find I do my best work when I’m being pushed outside of my comfort zone. I’m also working on Season 2 of my podcast, Sweet & Sour, which I co-host with my sister.

L: What does beauty mean to you?

K: Beauty is comfort and confidence. To me, it comes through in how people carry themselves — proud and unapologetic about who they are. I feel the most beautiful when I’m comfortable, both physically and emotionally. Even though I love to get dressed up, I often feel way more beautiful in an oversized t-shirt than I do in a tight dress, because I don’t worry myself about how I look or what other people think when I’m not trying hard.

I also think beauty is full of contradictions. Like I want to have a good all natural look, so I buy 12 different K-Beauty moisturizers, toners and creams. That’s my path to “natural,” hahaha. Or to get my hair looking effortless, just woke up like this vibes, I shower, use prep spray, and blow dry. And while yes, beauty is being comfortable with who I am, that doesn’t mean I don’t have parts of myself that I hate or wish were different. I just work to not let those negative thoughts take over.

L: And lately, how do you stay in the moment?

K: Ooh, love this. My friends do a great job of keeping me in the moment — whether it’s emotional support, calling me out on my bullshit, or just joking around. I’m also doing this course called The Artist’s Way with my friend Steph, which involves a daily writing practice called “morning pages.” Every morning, before anything else, you write 3 pages longhand. It can be about anything and it’s not supposed to be good, the point is just to get words out on the page. And you’re not allowed to go back and re-read them! So it’s been a great way for me to keep myself in the moment and be in touch with where I am mentally and emotionally.

Special thanks to Katie!

Photo by Aundre Larrow

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